THE WORD MEDIEVAL can be translated as meaning ‘the time in between’, and it covers a period of about a thousand years between the end of the Roman empire and the beginning of the Renaissance around 1450. We don’t know a great deal about music-making in the early part of this period, because only church music was important enough to be written down, and only a tiny bit of that has survived.
Very slowly, the idea of combining two or more lines together began to be used in the big churches and cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris. A piece of plainchant was sung with very long notes, while the other voices sang other lines above and below it using much shorter notes.
There was another popular kind of religious music called a motet, in which each of the vocal lines could have its own words – so you could have three texts going at once, sometimes in different languages!
From the beginning of the 12th century non-church, secular music started to be written down. This wasn’t music made by ordinary people – that would have been a waste of expensive paper. It was music made in royal and aristocratic households. Like early church music, this was at first made out of just one melodic line, sometimes with an instrumental drone.
Many songs were about ‘courtly’ love – a kind of idealised relationship in which the lady is always out of reach, and the man devotes his life to trying to please her. The French composer Machaut wrote lots of songs about courtly love. Like all very old music, the music is hard to read, and nobody is quite sure how it should sound. Some musicians think instruments should be used, others argue that it should use only voices.